ewastecr.gifStarting July 1, all electronics products shipped into the EU must conform to RoHS, a EU directive covering hazardous substances like lead and mercury.

What is not so well known is that China has its own version of this legislation and it could put western firms at a big disadvantage ($) according to AMR Research, a US-based consultancy.

From March 1 2007, electronics products will need a specific label before they can be sold in China. The burden associated with getting products certified is likely to fall heaviest on western firms.

For one thing, the law has only been published in Chinese. For another, the certification can only be done at state-owned laboratories. AMR Research sees the new law as a thinly-veiled measure to protect its domestic suppliers:

The Chinese are enacting a stringent law that raises the bar to comply, especially for foreign companies. If a western company and a Chinese company each need products certified, which one do you think will be prioritised? “

I'm not so sure that the law will prove so discriminatory — the devil is in the detail — but it's difficult to argue with its intention. Western brand-name manufacturers like Apple and Hewlett-Packard love to boast about their concern for the environmental and their “responsibility as global citizens”.

Its only natural that China should encourage its domestic manufacturers to use the same competitive weapons and start wearing their environmental credentials on their sleeve. According to AMR Research:

Is China becoming sympathetic to global sustainability issues? Doubtful. However, it does realise that forcing industries to deal with environmental issues will make it more competitive against the United States and other countries. It will further propel the country into becoming a dominant player in the world economy.”

China has traditionally paid scant attention to the problem of electronic waste. Indeed, in China's “recycling towns”, e-waste is not a problem, but a huge opportunity.

That is because most western economies now have legislation to promote the take-back and recycling of unwanted electronics goods like computers and mobile phones. But this recycling is highly labour-intensive and so almost all of the west's discarded hardware ends up in China.

It is possible to recycle electronics products in such a way that minimises the damage to the environment. Indeed, for some western businesses specialised in environmental technology, China is a market with huge opportunities. For example, Samill, a Finnish company, has established a plant in Shanghai that uses a dry process to recycle the toxic liquids used to strip precious metals.

However, such plants are few and far between today. Most e-waste is smuggled in and broken down using brute force and toxic chemicals in back-yard “recycling workshops” where environmental controls are lax.

As China's economy develops, it creates its own growing mountain of domestically-produced e-waste. According to a recent ChinaWatch report, China has generated roughly 1.1m tons of e-waste annually since 2003, including 5m TV sets, 4m refrigerators, 5m computers and countless mobile phones.

If the new Chinese legislation forces manufacturers — western or Chinese — to wake up and take more responsibility for this problem, then it has to be a step in the right direction.

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